A Mighty Heart
The “mighty heart” of the title is manifestly that of Mariane Pearl, the wife of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered by Islamist jihadists in Pakistan in 2002.
With Angelina Jolie in the main role, this quietly surprising film about the Pearls can’t help being perceived, at least in part, as a peculiar sort of star vehicle. But writer-director Michael Winterbottom works skillfully at framing the central narrative in larger and more complex terms than that. And, title notwithstanding, the director’s lucidly understated approach increases the likelihood that we will come to understand that there may be several “mighty hearts” coming into view here.
Based on Mariane Pearl’s book about these events, the screen version is an intriguingly offbeat mixture of police procedural, intelligence/counter intelligence tale, and journalistic docudrama. Late in the action, it also verges on tabloid soap opera, but Winterbottom and Jolie show an artful tact in both deflecting and confronting the morbid melodrama implicit in the unavoidably sensationalistic facts of the case—the killers’ videotaping the beheading of Daniel Pearl.
One of the best moments of the film, and a vindication of Winterbottom’s method, comes in a scene that addresses the fact of that videotape while also repudiating the cruel voyeurism encouraged by so much of the contemporary mass media. And the film is generally at its best when it’s telling the Pearls’ story in a zig-zaggingly forthright fashion that preserves the uncertainties and ambiguities in contemporary events that are still unfolding.
Jolie is striking and effective in the central role, as is Dan Futterman in the smaller but no less crucial role of Daniel Pearl. But this is a case where giving a good performance means honoring the subject matter more than pleasing an audience, hence the difficult juggling act of filmmakers putting a movie star at the center of the story while also trying to present her character as a small but significant part of a larger, more confounding drama.
Daniel Pearl and writer-activist Asra Nomani (played with fiery calm by Archie Panjabi) emerge as mighty hearts in the film’s vision, as do others (including members of Daniel Pearl’s family). And the courage and faith involved are made more immediate and moving by the film’s willingness to portray the complex realities of a terrible ongoing drama.